When I was a boy — so these stories always begin — I spent a summer or two on my oldest uncle's farm in northwestern Iowa. It was the farm where my father was raised, and when I say I spent a summer or two there, I mean it's summer in all my memories of the place. The sun is hot on the cracked sidewalk leading down from the back door to the garden gate. The lilacs are long over. The grove is in full, ominous leaf.
But in photographs from my father's childhood it's often winter on the farm, and you can see in those photographs that the farmsteads in the distance have been joined, not separated, by the snow lying out on the fields. In the mudroom between the kitchen and the back door of the farmhouse, there were signs of winter even in the summers when I came to visit — enormous quilted coveralls, oil-stained at the cuffs, hung by the nape on hooks, like headless convicts all in a row. I knew that in winter the mud in the machine yard froze into unbelievable shapes, and I imagined, though I never saw it, that in the animal yards a fog sometimes lay dormant just above the backs of the cattle and that in the low houses where the chickens and pigs were kept the body heat was often oppressive, too liquid, too penetrating to tolerate for long.
On that farm were dairy cows, beef cattle, hogs, and both the laying and the cooking kinds of chickens. In my father's day there had been draft horses and sheep and geese and a goat or two as well. In other words, there had lived on that farm, at one time or another, bulls, steers, heifers, cows, calves, boars, sows, shoats, gilts, colts, fillies, geldings, mares, stallions, roosters, cockerels, hens, pullets, ganders, geese, goslings, rams, ewes, kids, and lambs. To each of these a breed name was also assigned, and each came in a color that could be named specifically, too. Some of these creatures also had personal names or an impromptu moniker that singled out a uniqueness, like a twisted horn or a hostile temperament. Of all these distinctions I was unaware. To me, even the difference between beef cattle and dairy cows was confusing at first.
But what wasn't confusing was the appeal of these animals, their power over my imagination. Even now, remembering those days nearly fifty years ago, I feel as though I'm looking past the horizon of my own life and into a painting by Constable. In the afternoons the dairy herd really did walk up an elm-shaded lane to a small, heavily trodden yard where they stood, meticulously aware of rank, waiting to be admitted to the milking parlor. The door would be slid back on its rollers, and one Holstein — always the same one — would make her way up the concrete ramp, swinging her rectangular head side to side as she came through the doorway, and then stepping along the barn to her stanchion with all the gravity of a town woman carrying a hot dish to a church supper. The air would soon be filled with barn swallows and the rhythmic, wheezing sound of automatic milkers.
Almost every day I found myself in a corner of the farmyard where the hog fence met the side of a granary. There, I could stand on one of the fence rails, being careful not to let my feet poke through to the other side, and I could look in on the life of pigs. Unlike the humid climate in the farrowing house next door, the atmosphere above the hogpen seemed to be filled with a molecular dust that held the light. There were bogs of mud in the low spots, as there are in every good hogpen. Yet this was an overwhelmingly dry place, the locus of an effete, hair-splitting rationalism espoused by thick-skinned philosophers who were also profound students of their own bodily comfort. The hogs lolled, they fretted, they batted their small eyes in the noontime light, they tried to convey their intelligence to one another, and to me, but failed.
All the wood in the pen as high as a pig's back was sanded smooth by their rubbing, which I didn't understand until the first time I stroked a mature boar's pompadour and realized that it was bristle. Cleanliness was a fetish among the humans in the milk room, where milk was filtered and cooled in a stainless steel tank, but it was no less a fetish among the hogs in the hogpen, though you had to look for it. Perhaps the cleanest spot on the whole farm — with apologies to my aunt Esther — was the hog trough between meals. Its inner surface had been worn as smooth as ivory, as smooth as the trencher of an ascetic desert saint.
But it wasn't only the animals I noticed. It was also the humans among the animals. I was struck by my uncle Everon's fearlessness as he moved among the hogs, a fearlessness all the more remarkable because the hogpen had been represented to me as a terribly dangerous place. If a cow leaned too heavily on one of my cousins as he washed her bag before milking, he would simply thump her on her bony flank until she stood over.
I, who had grown up almost solely among people, expected to see human responses from these animals — resentment, outrage, peevishness. I didn't realize that the high disdain with which the cattle treated my cousins was a form of comedy or that the squealing of the hogs as my uncle moved among them was absurd self-dramatization. Do you suppose it was anyone's purpose, let alone the collective purpose of so many human generations, to breed so much dignity into farm animals? Who needed the intellect of the pig — its radical smartness? Who would set out to engender an eye as calm and unjudging, yet so capable of reflecting human self-judgment, as the eye you see in the head of a cow? Yet there they are, reminders of how utterly interwoven our fates have turned out to be. Farm animals are the product of coevolution with humans, or rather we're the product of coevolution with them. They are twinned with us. The word that applies to our link with them is neither bond nor contract: it is covenant.
From More Scenes from the Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Copyright 2013 Verlyn Klinkenborg. Excerpted by permission of Princeton Architectural Press.